Rahile Dawut’s WeChat profile photo has not changed since she vanished. She is still staring up the same spiral staircase, her diminutive form and kind smile, her hallmark. All the messages we had exchanged have now gone. Every now and again I send a note hoping that something might have changed, but am blocked immediately.
Rahile Dawut, beloved guardian of Uyghur folklore and traditions and celebrated academic at home and abroad, set off for Beijing in December 2017 but has not been heard of since. She has recently joined the dubious roll call of incarcerated writers honored outside China, by becoming the recipient of this year’s Scholars at Risk “Courage to Think” award.
The New York-based international network of institutions and individuals, whose mission it is to protect scholars and promote academic freedom, presented this award to her on behalf of, at the last count, the 386 scholars and academics of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, who have been muzzled, arrested, imprisoned or simply disappeared in the midst of the greatest crackdown on academic freedom in China since the Cultural Revolution.
Dawut’s daughter, Akida Pulat, a former Master’s student at the University of Washington who has been waiting in vain for news of her mother, received the award on her behalf at an online ceremony last week.
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Dawut was unusual among my Uyghur friends in that she could never be drawn on politics. She used to bemoan the fact that her daughter was in no hurry to return, marry, and settle down in Xinjiang, where she loyally maintained the opportunities for overseas educated Uyghurs were many. Despite having travelled extensively herself, Dawut was committed to her homeland and the culture and the people she loved. We would sit for hours over coffee and her favorite treat, chocolate, talking about the stories she had picked up from villagers and the customs she witnessed and tried to capture while visiting the huge bustling village bazaars. She would recount with delight the lost songs she had heard from the elderly, many of whom would claim they were over 100.
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Government policies, intrigues in Beijing, and talk of separatism and independence seemed to leave her cold and until her mysterious arrest she had been a staunch member of the Communist Party for 30 years. That’s why her daughter is both puzzled and frustrated by her disappearance.
In a moving video for Mother’s Day this year, Pulat spoke on YouTube in the vain hope that someone out there might be listening, even her mother, wherever she might be being held. She talks about her “amazing mother” who is “kind and law abiding.”
“I want to say happy Mother’s Day, but she can’t hear me,” said a subdued Pulat. “Mum, happy Mother’s Day.”
She has not seen Dawut in person since 2016, but the once-daily calls they had with each other were a lifeline. The two were inseparable wherever they were in the world. When her mother stopped returning her calls, messages to her father and grandmother were rebuffed with pleas to be patient. Pulat trusted the government would realize its mistake and release her mother.
“You didn’t do anything harmful to society. Even though you were an extraordinary scholar, you were just an ordinary woman. You were just pursuing a peaceful life with your children,” reasoned Pulat. “But two and a half years has passed. The more days that pass, the more devastated I feel. I can’t help speaking out even though I know that if I speak out I could put other family members in danger, or I may put you in a worse situation. I cannot even think about that because sometimes I just feel so devastated that I wanted to speak out for you,” she said.
Pulat is beside herself with worry and lives, as does every Uyghur diaspora exile, with the agony of not knowing and imagining the worst. The family waited until August 2018 before breaking their silence in case they would cause trouble for Dawut. But now they are desperate and begging the Chinese government to release her.
“Now my dream to return home and get a job and take care of you when you are old is broken,” Pulat said in the video. “Mum, I don’t know your situation or your health. Are you all right?” She vowed to pursue the Chinese government for news of her mother’s whereabouts. “Until I see your face, until I see you at home, until I see you go back to your normal life, I won’t stop, I won’t stop asking the question, ‘where is my mum?’”
“Happy Mother’s Day, mum, I miss you so much.”
What compounds the puzzle of her disappearance, and raises questions about the rationale behind her presumed arrest, is Dawut’s everyday single minded devotion to her community. She was not overtly religious; she avoided controversial subjects and terrorism could not have been further from her agenda. She was devoted to her craft and her people. She facilitated an anthropological study of destitute child acrobats in southern Xinjiang, but moved by the poverty of two of the orphans, she felt she could not just stand at a distance and became personally involved in their future. She submerged herself in the Herculean task of cataloguing and making sense of hours of musical and oral histories, but would still find time to run home to cook national dishes from scratch for her husband and elderly parents, and deliver food packages to ailing neighbors in hospital. She knew her students’ situations intimately and ensured none went hungry, even accommodating them when necessary.
She loved her scholars to be adventurous, particularly the girls. She encouraged them to take the initiative and go to far flung places to record local life and lost traditions. We spoke about my own fascination with the “lost” settlements of Dariye Boyi, deep inside the vast inhospitable Taklamakan desert. This community of Uyghurs had managed to remain undetected until 1986 when low flying aircraft spotted life beside the vestiges of the Keriya River, which Uyghurs had followed seeking water and land for their sheep more than 400 years ago. Dawut had supported a plan by two of her students to record these shepherds making their tortuous journey to market, 245 kilometers away, but sadly the recording equipment was not up to scratch and the girls were forced to cut short their observations. But Dawut was enthusiastic about their efforts and regarded the ill-prepared expedition as a learning experience.
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Unlike many academics whose work never gains traction among ordinary people, Dawut was excited that her 2002 study of the hundreds of religious shrines (mazars) dotting the desert landscape had won the hearts of Uyghur farmers, who she told me, used the resultant volume “Mazars” as a guide book. “They were so keen to perform pilgrimages to these shrines,” she said, “that they used my book as a kind of tourist guide to the areas and took it with them wherever they went.” In the book she not only located the shrines but described the beliefs and rituals associated with each one. “This is what they loved,” she said.
In 2016 at the beginning of new Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo’s crackdown on religious books, Dawut might have seen the writing on the wall when her book started to disappear from bookshelves, but even then she was optimistic and wanted to believe the best of her government. “I’m sure there isn’t a problem,” she said. “Perhaps it’s just an issue with distribution.”
But unbeknown to her, she had clearly been marked out for dispatch and it was only a matter of time.
Pulat is powerless to free her mother, but she has become an activist. Her weapons are her words; social media is her platform.
“My mother is a scholar, not a criminal,” she said at the award ceremony last week. “She studies the folklore and cultural traditions of minority populations. She promoted the culture and history of her people. She has been doing research within the strict confinement of censorship imposed by the Chinese government.”
“What makes my mother’s eyes sparkle are the ancient sites, the deserts and villages and the folk customs that have stood the test of time,” Pulat wrote elsewhere. “She loves to hear the stories of the twilight people telling stories of previous generations, and she is fascinated by the Desert Poplar.” She concludes, “Since December 12, 2017, she was illegally detained by the CCP. I have lost my mother; and the Desert Poplar, that has stood for thousands of years in the wilderness, has also lost a chronicler who loves it from the heart.”
Ruth Ingram is a researcher who has written extensively for the Central Asia-Caucasus publication, Institute of War and Peace Reporting, the Guardian Weekly newspaper and other publications.